Transitioning in and out of Chaturanga Dandasana
Chaturanga is a difficult pose yet yoga practitioners perform it many times in every vinyasa and ashtanga class. Unluckily, classes often go too prompt to be mindful of alignment and being filthy transitioning from plank to chaturanga to upward facing dog can, over time, injure the shoulders and low back. Chaturanga requires a lot of strength but I don't think the errors I see happen just because students are feeble. I think that most yoga students who practice with poor alignment do because it's such an abstract position; their faces are facing downward so practitioners have no reference point and they have no idea how they look in the pose. I've written about it before and I've stopped in the middle of flow classes to break down the pose several times. It's time to write about it again. At least the shoulder dipping stuff seems to have mostly abated. I found out that was a common error because of rampant poor instruction. At least it seems that most people have moved on from that. Now I've seen a fresh common error: the tippy toe thing.
I've seen many students the past few months thrust forward on their toes on the way from plank to chaturanga. I don't know where this comes from but I've seen it often enough to be alarmed because it's a bad idea for at least two big reasons: shoulders and low back. The shoulder joint is built for mobility. It consists of three bones (the scapula/shoulder blade, the humerus/upper arm, and the clavicle/neck corset bone), connected to each other with ligaments and muscles. But the bones don't fit together as tightly as other joints do. Because of the way it's constructed, the shoulder lets us carry, throw, place items in overhead cabinets, put on and take off clothes overhead, comb hair, and carry out many other significant tasks via the day. But a price we pay for all the mobility is that we sacrifice stability. The shoulder is not an inherently stable joint. So moving our bod weight on a stable arm puts the shoulder in a precarious position. Done without decent alignment risks overuse injuries of the muscles (tendinitis) and ligaments (strains) holding the joint together. There also are blood vessels and nerves that run in front of the joint that can be impinged (scrunched), causing ache and numbness if we narrow the joint because the bones are not maintained in their optimal position.
The best way to transition from plank pose to chaturanga is to just arch the elbows. By arching the elbows toward the hips, we bring the upper arm bones alongside the ribs and the elbows remain over the wrists. Attempt this: sit cozily with your two arms out in front of you, parallel to the ground with fingers pointing upward (recall the motility to the word “stop” when dancing to the Supremes' “Stop… In the name of love, before you break my heart,…”). Then bring your elbows to your midbody keeping your forearms parallel to the ground. That's chatturanga. When you do this correctly, the mitts stay down by your mid-body, they don't come up by your shoulders. To thrust forward on tiptoes on the way to chaturanga puts the shoulders ahead of the wrists and mitts when you transition into upward facing dog. This puts undue strain on the unstable shoulder joints.
The 2nd reason to keep from pushing forward onto the toes in chaturanga is because you need to maintain active strength through your gams to maintain a straight spine. To point toes prevents you from using the power in the back of the gams and your back, creating a tendency to dip in the low back. The dip in the low back puts strain on the joints there and it prevents the pose from suggesting an amazing, back-extension-strengthening chance. I cue students to press back through the high-heeled slippers and I've even cracked down the pose with students coming to plank against the wall with their toes on the floor and high-heeled slippers into the wall, instructing to press high-heeled shoes into the wall to transition to chatturanga and to maintain the pose. Using the gams not only helps to strengthen the spine, it also takes up some of the work so the pose doesn't strain the back.
I suggest asking a friend or teacher to take a picture of you in chaturanga and a movie as you transition from plank to chaturanga to upward facing dog. Observe the location of your shoulders and elbows relative to your wrists and see if your spine remains long as you come into and hold chatturanga. You will learn a lot about how you are moving when you see pictures. It's unlikely to know what your alignment looks like without the outer view. But if your back our shoulders bother you during vinyasas, it might be because you are pressing forward onto your toes during this difficult transition.
Lisa Riolo, PhD, PT, E-RYT500
Lisa Riolo, PhD, PT, E-RYT500 has practiced yoga since one thousand nine hundred eighty nine and is a registered yoga teacher with Yoga Alliance at the 500-hour level. She has introduced the anatomy and alignment curricula in four 200-hour and two 500-hour teacher training programs. From her own yoga practice, Lisa brings to her students the union of breath and assets to concentrate the mind and bring awareness to the alignment, balance, and strength for each asana. She encourages students to implement lessons learned on the mat in their daily lives off the mat. Her education as a physical therapist permits her to train asana practice mindful of alignment to optimize the efficiency and strength of asana and to be mindful of reducing risk of injury.